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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Supreme Court upholds credit card company’s anti-steering provisions

Courts U.S. Supreme Court Credit Cards Antitrust Appellate Second Circuit

Courts

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote held that a credit card company did not unreasonably restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Act by preventing merchants from steering customers to other credit cards. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit considered the non-steering protections included in the credit card company’s agreements with merchants and concluded that such provisions protect the card company’s rewards program and prestige and preserve the company’s market share based on cardholder satisfaction. Accordingly, the 2nd Circuit concluded that “there is no reason to intervene and disturb the present functioning of the payment‐card industry.” In June 2017, a coalition of states, led by Ohio, petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 2nd Circuit decision, arguing the credit card industry’s services to merchants and cardholders are not interchangeable and therefore, the credit card market should be viewed as a two-sided market, not a single market. The Supreme Court disagreed with the petitioners’ arguments, finding that the credit card industry is best viewed as one market. The court reasoned that while there are two sides to the credit card transaction, credit card platforms “cannot make a sale unless both sides of the platform simultaneously agree to use their services,” resulting in “more pronounced indirect network effects and interconnected pricing and demand.” Accordingly, the two-sided transaction should be viewed as a whole for purposes of assessing competition. The court further concluded that the higher merchant fees the credit card company charges result in a “robust rewards program” for cardholders, causing the company’s anti-steering provisions to not be inherently anticompetitive, but in fact to have “spurred robust interbrand competition and has increased the quality and quantity of credit-card transactions.”

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